Romania’s ever-present record at the Rugby World Cup is assured after Spain’s shock 18-10 defeat to Belgium in Brussels on Sunday cost Los Leones the chance to leapfrog them in the European qualification standings.
As the highest ranked team other than Georgia over the last two seasons of the Rugby Europe Championship, Romania qualify for RWC 2019 as Europe 1 and can now look forward to games against Six Nations Grand Slam winners Ireland, Scotland, hosts Japan and the yet to be determined Play-off Winner in Pool A.
Reward also comes in the form of playing Japan in the opening match of the tournament at the Tokyo Stadium on 20 September, 2019.
A win in their final qualifier would have seen Spain wipe out the three-point lead Romania enjoyed going into the final weekend of the Rugby Europe Championship, but they succumbed to the nerves of the occasion and must now rely on alternative routes to make it to Japan 2019.
Despite the loss, Spain are confirmed as the second-placed team in European qualification and will play Iberian neighbours Portugal for the right to face Samoa in home and away fixtures for the vacant Play-off Winner spot. The loser will participate in the four-team repechage in November against Canada and two other teams.
Favourites come unstuck
Spain went into the weekend as favourites to secure automatic qualification after last month’s crucial 22-10 win over Romania in front of a capacity 15,000 crowd in Madrid.
But Belgium tore up the script on a bitterly cold day at the Petit Heysel Stadium, imposing themselves on their higher-ranked opponents from the off and building up a 12-0 lead with the biting wind behind them in the first half.
Of the two teams, it was the Black Devils who were inspired by the sense of occasion with a jittery Spain making numerous unforced errors and conceding countless penalties, four of which resulted in points for the home side from the boot of fly-half Vincent Hart, who celebrated his 24th birthday only the day before.
After a scoreless first quarter in which both sides played with the ball in hand but ultimately couldn’t find a way through, Belgium took the lead when Hart slotted his first attempt at goal between the posts on 21 minutes.
Two more penalties followed, in the 25th and 30th minutes, as ill-discipline continued to get the better of Los Leones.
Brad Linklater had a chance to pull three points back for the visitors but, to the frustration of the Kiwi-born winger, his effort struck the left hand upright. Nothing seemed to be going Spain’s way and Hart punished another scrum penalty with 37 minutes gone to take Belgium's lead into double figures.
On the stroke of half-time, Hart had another opportunity, this time on the wrong side of the pitch for a left-footer, but his effort went just wide spoiling his 100 per cent success rate.
Spain emerged from dressing room early for the start of the second half and clearly energised by coach Santiago Santos’ half-time team talk.
A second Linklater miss meant that they were unable to convert their pressure into points, though, and it was Belgium who struck next with another Hart penalty on 49 minutes. To make matters worse for the visitors, hooker Marco Ferrer was sent to the sin-bin.
Spain rode out the 10-minute period without conceding any further points, but as the clock continued to count down their efforts to claw their way back into the game became more and more frantic. Centre Dan Snee spurned a possible try-scoring opportunity when he dropped an unsympathetic pass from Pierre Barthere 20 metres out with only the opposition tight-head in front of him, but Spain finally did get on the scoreboard on 71 minutes when a four-man wedge drove over the Belgium line from a lineout move.
Replacement kicker Mathieu Peluchon kept his nerve to kick the conversion and when he added a penalty with four minutes to go, the hardy band of Spanish supporters who had travelled north started to believe again.
But no sooner had their hopes of a famous comeback been raised, Los Leones conceded yet another penalty. Once again, Hart made no mistake from right in front of the posts and Belgium were left to celebrate their first win over Spain in 12 years and only their second ever.
Lelos regain trophy
Meanwhile, it was a bitter-sweet day for Romania as they lost their Rugby Europe Championship title to Georgia, the Lelos winning back the trophy after a 25-16 win in Tbilisi.
Georgia scored a pushover try through number eight Lasha Lomidze midway through the first half as the home side took a slender 10-6 lead into the break, the rest of their points coming from the trusty boot of Ioseb Matiashvili. Florin Vlaicu slotted two penalties for Romania.
The Lelos gave themselves further breathing space early in the second half when Anzor Sichinava ran in a try and fellow wing Ioseb Matiashvili converted for the second time in the match. Matiashvili took the score to 20-6 with another penalty before Vlaicu replied in kind, on the hour mark, with a well-struck effort from 40 metres out.
Replacement forward Karlen Asieshvili made the game safe when he crossed for Georgia’s bonus-point try in the 69th minute. Andrei Radoi grabbed a late consolation for Romania with Vlaicu adding the conversion but the 38,000 crowd did not have to wait long before they could celebrate their side's 'Grand Slam'.
Georgia won four of their five matches with bonus points, to finish 10 points clear of the Oaks. The only time they failed to take maximum points was against Spain in round three.
In Sunday’s other fixture Russia beat Germany 57-3 in Cologne. Number eight Anton Rudoi scored a hat-trick while hooker Valery Tsnobiladze and left-wing Alexey Mikhaltsov grabbed a brace of tries apiece in the nine-try victory that secured the Bears fourth place in the Rugby Europe Championship table.
Photo credit: Gogita Bukhaidze (main picture)